Voyeurism in the mikva is a grave violation of Jewish law and of the sacred trust between a community and its rabbi. It is particularly loathsome if, as charged, it involved abuse of converts who placed their trust in the converting rabbi.
I wanted to believe that Rabbi Barry Freundel — the Washington, DC, rabbi accused of trying to install a secret camera to spy on women entering the mikva, or ritual bath — was innocent of the charges leveled against him. Now, as details surface from day to day, I pray that this episode will not undermine religious observance and the work of thousands of devoted women who serve in mikvot, rain or shine. Mikva is a sacred religious obligation that Jewish women have performed faithfully for thousands of years, and so must it remain.
Rabbi Freundel will have his day in court. Wherever the truth lies, the allegations spotlight an anomaly that needs correction. While Orthodox communal institutions serve men and women alike, women are generally under-represented or absent from supervisory roles. Their absence is particularly acute in the case of mikvot, whose principal clients are women, and whose supervisors are typically men.
Mikva is a holy and private space for the community’s women, and it is a place where not just water runs deep. Consider a space overflowing with the prayers, vulnerability, and emotions of women in fertility treatments, women recovered from or in treatment for cancer, women hoping for better in their marriages, less observant women trying out a religious ritual for the first time, victims of domestic or sexual abuse, and women dealing with all the commonplace challenges of life.
Most mikvot today are well-run, and supported by the tireless, unsung work of women and men. But the present allegations should serve as a warning signal, and prompt us to correct conditions that invite abuse. If in the past we lacked female Torah scholars who could supervise mikvot, today that has changed. By this summer, NISHMAT, The Jeanie Schottenstein Center For Advanced Torah Study For Women, will have qualified more than 100 Yoatzot Halacha, women scholars in the laws of mikva and family purity. Nine are presently serving in North America, including the Jersey Shore area, with widespread rabbinic backing. Later this year, they will be joined by seven more who are presently studying to be Yoatzot Halacha through Nishmat’s Miriam Glaubach Center in the United States. These women could serve as regional mikva supervisors, working closely with community rabbis.
Educators must teach and inspire women to use the mikva faithfully. But it is the community’s and its leadership’s responsibility to prevent abuse and to create the conditions that encourage proper observance. No man should have the keys to a women’s mikva. The time has come to listen to the needs of women and to include women.